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Damsels in distress: A fairy tale thing of the past3 min read

Fairy tales have run their course, it’s time to stop teaching girls they need a man to save them and instead empower the younger generation.

In a dark cellar, deep in the belly of a cold loveless home, Cinderella is waiting for a prince to save her. From her tower, Rapunzel pines for emancipation, lowering her golden curls for the first man she meets. All Sleeping Beauty needs is a non-consensual kiss to rescue her and live out her fairy tale.

The damsel in distress trope is becoming increasingly problematic and outdated, encouraging young girls to become dependent on male protection. Perhaps, what is most disturbing is the fact that a large proportion of female distress is perpetrated by men.

Recent statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggest that globally, one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. While men can be and are victims of domestic abuse, WHO’s figures suggest that it is a male majority perpetuating gender-based violence. The continual rhetoric of women needing men to save and protect them within fairy tales gives children the message that women are weak and even subservient to men. In a society rife with sexism and gender-based violence, this is incredibly harmful.

How fairytales reinforce gender stereotypes

The stereotyping encouraged by stories with a damsel in distress seems to maintain a patriarchal status quo. They reinforce the idea that women are prizes to be won, rather than strong, independent beings. A survey conducted by the Fawcett society concluded that 45% of participants said they experienced gender stereotypes as children and 51% of participants said this stereotyping constrained their career choices. 

Fairy tales reek of misogyny and this can be as damaging to boys as well as girls. The princes can be considered as benevolent misogynists on an egotistical quest for true love. They rescue their princess to condemn her to a life of domestic servitude, all in the name of love.

Boys grow up being led to believe they must be heroic and strong, with their wife meekly at their sides. It puts pressure on men to be the sole provider and reduces girls’ ambitions to simply get married.

Research from the University of Texas has shown that men tend to get jealous when their partners have more successful and fulfilling jobs. This jealousy usually comes from the desire to be the sole breadwinner and reluctance to give this role up, as shown in children’s fairy tales.

Fuelling toxic masculinity

The hero and damsel trope can also contribute to aggression and violence in men. Fairy tales encourage boys to bottle up their emotions to stop themselves from appearing weak. This only encourages toxic masculinity based around aggression and suppressed emotion. Often, it is only the villain or princess shown as emotional. It is this toxic masculinity and sexism which motivates gender-based violence toward women.

Perhaps, it’s time to leave the damsels in distress in the past and instead tell children stories of inspirational women. Maybe a tale of Boudicca leading a revolt against the Romans, or the story of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Laureate and advocate of girls education. It is far more constructive to both girls and boys to hear stories of role models rather than archaic stereotypes.

Fairy tale empowerment
Boudicca statue, Westminster – Chris Karidis/Unsplash

The world’s future heroines are strong, capable and definitely not waiting for a man to save them.

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